Avoid these business mistakes in Africa

American corporations and non-profits have been racing to Africa over the past few years in an effort to help the developing world. In the process, we all seem to make a lot of the same errors. Here’s how to avoid the ten most common mistakes.

Time is an alien concept.

The best advice I ever got was: If you have one good meeting a day, it’s a good day. If you have two good meetings a day it’s a great day. If you have three good meetings a day you are probably home. Don’t arrive expecting to line up 5–6 meetings a day and don’t expect people to show up on time or in many cases to show up at all. Focus on the meetings you must have. Everything else can wait for the next trip.

Not all democracies are alike.

Just because people vote doesn’t mean their democracy works like ours does. The structure of a government isn’t important. How the power is structured is what matters. Don’t assume that a visit with a Minister is the best way to do business. What if he doesn’t have the decision making power you think he does? The result is that you waste a lot time with someone who can’t deliver your project.

Size matters.

It’s illegal for an American to bribe foreign officials. End of discussion unless you happen to be a citizen of a country where it’s illegal but no one cares. Does the size of the envelope matter? Yes. Can you do business without it? Yes. If you don’t want to invest money, you have to invest a lot of time to develop relationships or find someone who already has those relationships. Figure out a way to make it work but don’t be stupid. FCPA is a four-letter word.

They don’t understand me.

You speak English and they speak English. When you say that a business needs a website for credibility, they don’t understand that you mean something more than a splash page. When they tell you that they will have an answer for you tomorrow, there is no way that will happen. Speak slowly (especially if you are from NYC) and try to remember that you grew up in an entirely different environment. Not everyone got a car in high school and Real Housewives of Africa work, cook, clean and take care of the family full time.

Plan ahead.

True story. We’re on the road and call a hotel to see how much the rooms cost. They tell us how much, we tell the desk clerk that we are on our way, we get there and he tells us there are no rooms available. He thought we just wanted to know how much rooms cost. When you travel, be specific and understand that your idea of amenities may not be the same as theirs.

The process is the goal.

My biggest complaint used to be the numbing processes that organizations employ to determine whether or not to pursue a project. Boy, was I wrong. That process is designed to ensure that your company or NGO doesn’t get scammed in an unsavory deal. It’s that process that will save your job. Don’t fight it; understand that it is critical overseas. For you it’s a job; for the company it could cost millions of dollars to overcome a mistake that turns into a PR disaster.

A suspect or a prospect.

A prospect is someone who has the need for your service, can pay for it and can make a decision now. A suspect is everyone else. I work with a guy who tries to blow up a project the minute someone brings him an idea. While it’s counter intuitive to kill a deal you are trying to make, he’s right. It saves you a lot of time that you could use to focus on projects that can happen. Africa is a lot like the Yukon gold rush; everyone has a great story and very few are telling the whole story.


Your project goes from the President (if you are lucky), to the Minister to his Deputy and then is lost forever. The “last mile” theory is really the last ten miles. Approval or follow through once a project has been approved is the most frustrating aspect of the developing world. Unless you are able to constantly monitor and push the project from the time it leaves the desk of a Minister until it actually reaches the villages, it will get sliced to bits by the time it arrives. The central government can’t do it there anymore than DC can do it here.


While you think your health or water project is the most critical initiative that the government can support, the people who run the country think otherwise. Your priority is rarely theirs even when they tell you it is. They should do it for the right reasons but that’s not the way politics works. Keep in mind that one of the problems with democracy (see Washington, DC) is that officials tend to respond to items that help them get elected and stay in office. It might be that they see you as someone who thinks you know all the answers and they don’t appreciate you telling them how to run their country.

How business is conducted. The most important concept to grasp is that the developing world is a face-to-face culture. Information isn’t exchanged in emails, text messages or phone calls. You can send information that way but most people won’t respond to it. Things only happen when you are on the ground. If you’re not prepared to constantly travel or have someone following up on your behalf, the minute your plane takes off, your project goes into limbo.

Carl Silverberg has advised numerous companies, elected two successive Presidents in Ghana and is currently working with three presidential candidates in Africa.